May public libraries digitize the books they have in their collections? May they display the digitized works? And, if so, is it permissible for the library user to make a copy – either on paper or a storage device? These are interesting questions which the CJEU had to consider in the case of Technische Universität Darmstadt vs. Eugen Ulmer KG (Case Ref.: C-117/13). The ruling came through last week and the Luxembourg judges clearly warmed their hearts for the venerable public library and the aim of safeguarding modern electronic offerings. However, it is now for the German Federal Court to interpret the answers given by the CJEU and to render a decision on the merits of the case.

The CJEU ruling has to be seen against the background of a long-lasting dispute between publishers and public libraries in Germany about how to interpret Section 52b of the German Copyright Act. This section implements  Article 5 (3) lit. n) of the InfoSoc Directive into German law. The case started before the Regional Court of Frankfurt back in 2009 and eventually made  its way to the German Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe. There, the proceedings were stayed and, in total, three questions were referred to the CJEU.

The first question  focussed on whether a library may rely on Article 5(3) lit. n) of the InfoSoc Directive only if there is no (reasonable) digital offering by the respective publisher. Alternatively, one could read the provision as if it applied to all works that were not already subject to licence terms. The CJEU answers the question in favour of the latter interpretation.

The second question concerned the scope of the exception set out in Article 5 (3) lit. n) of the  InfoSoc Directive. The provision does not explicitly refer to the right of reproduction however the CJEU’s view is that reproduction is permitted as a legitimate act of preparation for the later use of the digitized work at a terminal inside the library. The judges particularly referred to Article 5 (2) lit. c) of  InfoSoc Directive as  grounds for their decision

Finally, the third question related to whether the library user may be allowed to make paper copies of the electronically displayed work or even  download the data on a storage device. As a preliminary note, the CJEU says that Article 5 (3) lit. n) of the  InfoSoc Directive is not about what the user may or may not do. The provision is  aimed at public libraries. They are entitled to digitize and display the work. However, whereas Article 5 (3) lit. n) of the Copyright Directive may not be relied upon, the judges made clear that the library user may very well ground his right of reproduction on other exceptions and limitations set out in the directive. The CJEU  refers to  Article 5 (2) lit. a) and lit. b) of the  InfoSoc Directive as examples. In this context, the court emphasizes that the respective conditions of the exception at issue must be fulfilled. Particularly, the author must receive adequate compensation for such reproduction. What is remarkable here is the fact that the CJEU, unlike the Advocate General in his pleadings, does not distinguish between an analogue and a digital copy.

It is now up to the German Federal Court of Justice to render a decision on the merits of the case. Given that Section 53 (1) of the German Copyright Act provides for a right to make copies for private use and taking into consideration that Section 52b refers to an adequate compensation of the author, the chances are  that in future library users may look up the required works at the terminals  and may copy those parts they need for their studies on paper or a USB stick.